Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars , and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
10. Frog Fractions 2 ARG
Frog Fractions 2 image courtesy of Jim Crawford
You're not reading that wrong: I didn't pick Frog Fractions 2, I picked the alternate reality game leading up to Frog Fractions 2. Though I wasn't on the frontlines of solving the interconnected puzzles that drove Internet detectives up a wall for the past several years, I still felt like I was part of it. My reporting on their progress helped drive interest (and new people) to solving the ARG, and towards the end, Austin and I became part of the ARG, when one of its creators got in touch and used us to point people towards new evidence. (I'm still ethically conflicted on that moment, but it was exhilarating.) As someone what hasn't had much luck connecting with the actual Frog Fractions 2 game, I feel no sense of disappointment; the ARG was just as good.
In a year in which all sorts of political and societal norms were broken, it was only fitting one of mine was, too. I haven't spent serious time with a competitive multiplayer game since Halo 2 dominated my college dorm. Between an interest in storytelling, a lack of time, and little patience for online assholes, I was happy to let these games pass me by. Overwatch, though, was something different. Blizzard seemed to recognize there were a lot of people who should like these kinds of games, but for a variety of understandable reasons, they refused to engage. For some people, it was the colorful characters and rabid fandom. For me, it's how they made the game fun, even when you're playing poorly. There's no higher praise for a competitive game than to declare you had (nearly) as much fun losing as you would have had winning.
8. That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer tore my heart out, and I spent most of my time with it surrounded by a puddle of my own tears. It's a game that I'll never, ever play again. I don't need to; once was enough. From a design and storytelling perspective, it's full of problems, but I'm unable to judge it with anything resembling clarity. At its best, it effectively places you into a world of unimaginable grief and suffering. When it came out earlier this year, my wife was a few weeks pregnant, though we weren't celebrating. The doctors said, for reasons too complicated for this space, that we should prepare to lose the baby.
And yet, every week we went back to the doctor each week—our baby was still there. We didn't know if it was a boy or a girl, only that, with luck, it might be our child. The idea of losing a child we hadn't met was tough. The idea of losing a child that we'd come to know, raise, and make part of our lives was unfathomable. And so, I played That Dragon, Cancer, and wept for myself, my wife, our unborn child, and this family that lost theirs, but found the courage to tell their story. It was cathartic, it was important, and on August 25, the child we thought we'd lost was born. Her name is Jessica Rose Klepek.
7. Playstation VR Worlds: Shark Encounter
There were plenty of worthwhile games to play on virtual reality this year, as the technology entered the mainstream, but the one I kept coming back to, the one I keep booting up when someone wants to try VR for the first time, is this one demo that's included in Sony's PlayStation VR Worlds suite. It's only 10 minutes long, and you don't do anything but look around, as events unfold around you. You can't win or lose, and you don't hold a controller.
But watching as people shrieked with fright, awed with amazement, and were stunned to silence as they were lowered into the ocean's virtual depths has brought countless smiles to my face, even though I'm not one with the headset on. Every time the shark shows up, inevitably prompting an "Oh, shit!" from the person who's taking the trip, I'm tickled. It's been a bridging experience, a powerful way to show people "Look how amazing video games can be."
6. Dark Souls 3
When FromSoftware announced Dark Souls 3, I was torn. The way Bloodborne successfully remixed the Souls formula had me aching for the studio to keep the series' basic DNA and branch off. (If I keep wishing for it, Armored Souls will happen.) Dark Souls 2 wasn't a bad game, but compared to Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Demon's Souls, it felt wholly uninspired. But when it was revealed designer Hidetaka Miyazaki would be working on the game, I gave it a second though. And if I'm being honest, the Miyazaki connection didn't matter; I'm so utterly enthralled by the feeling Souls (and Souls-like) games give me, I'd have played it anyway. It's a solid sequel, one that takes Souls mechanics to the end of the road, but my expectations are higher. You were fun, Dark Souls 3, but it's time for a break. Thanks for all the good times.
5. The Last Guardian
You're rough, The Last Guardian. The highs are high, the lows are low, and most of the game takes place somewhere in-between. But what designer Fumito Ueda and his team pulled off is remarkable: they made me care about Trico. Granted, the fact that, if you squint, my own dog looks remarkably like Trico probably had something to do with my emotional connection to this big, goofy animal that didn't listen to me half the time.
Related, from Waypoint: Check out Senior Editor Mike Diver's top ten games of the year!
But there's a moment near the end of the game that really spoke to me, so heads up, I'm going to spoil the game a bit. When your character nearly drowns, Trico grabs you, sets you down, and tries to wake you. There's a moment where it becomes clear Trico believes you're dead, looks confused, and isn't sure what to do next. Their life has revolved around you, your life around theirs. It didn't take long for me to wonder what it would be like for my dog if that happened to me, which quickly triggered the waterworks. The platforming was awful in this game, but Trico? Trico was good.
4. Super Mario Run
My own skepticism at Nintendo's ability to function in the weird, exploitative world of mobile games has been matched by the company's own reluctance to build one of them. And while Miitomo was an interesting curiosity, it didn't hold my attention for more than a few days, and it wasn't why I play Nintendo games in the first place: gameplay. The controversies around the game's pricing doesn't mean much to me; what's important about Super Mario Run, the thing they needed to get right, was making a good game.
Super Mario Run is not just a good game, it's not just enjoyable compared to the wasteland of trash that is most mobile games, it's a great game—period. It seamlessly translates the spirit of Mario games—jumping—to an entirely new interface, as if Mario was destined to be there all along. I don't know how well the Switch will do, but Super Mario Run showcases Nintendo's ability to adapt as the world changes. If mobile is part of Nintendo's future, at least we know it involves awesome games.
It'd be easy to argue 2016 wasn't gifted many horror games, but it depends on your definition of horror. Inside, like Thumper, is weird, unnerving, and well-deserving of the horror branding, it just happens to take place inside of a platformer. When Inside was first announced, I couldn't figure out what could have possibly taken the developers at Playdead six years to make a game like this. But when I played Inside, it became clear why: they spent six years making sure every screen counted. Calling a game "ruthlessly efficient" sounds like strange praise, but it's true; Inside is exactly as long as it needs to be.
Every scene is only there because it needed to be. It has the right amount of puzzles, it ends exactly when it needs to, and every single moment is there for a reason. They spent six years editing a single idea into its purest form. Not many developers get such an opportunity, but we're very lucky that Playdead did.
The first time I played Thumper, my hands got clammy, sweat started beading down my neck, and I could feel myself tensing up. This is how I'd usually describe myself playing a particularly scary horror game, and nope, it's a music rhythm game riffing on games like Frequency and Amplitude. When the developers of Thumper dubbed their game "rhythm violence," it seemed like they were being cute, but the thud, thud, thud of the game's music, like the steady pounding of a sledgehammer, combined with the Lovecraftian visuals, proves terrifying. It's all the more unsettling in virtual reality, where the camera sits uncomfortably close to the ground, and the visuals are given an eerie depth. I can't stand to play the game for more than an hour at a time—it's too much. That'd usually be a problem for a game. Here, it's a compliment.
Doom is, pardon my language, fucking amazing. Every minute of my ten hours with Doom was spent hooting, hollering, and chugging beers, all while engaging with the most thrilling combat any game of 2016 had to offer. I'm still flabbergasted that id Software managed to bring Doom into the modern era without losing what made it special in the first place. As a longtime Doom fan, if you'd asked me what I wanted out of Doom in 2016, I'd probably have told you to leave well enough alone—why bother trying to capitalize on a classic? You'll just mess it up, anyway.
But I should probably start shutting up; in the last few years, both Wolfenstein and Doom are, remarkably, more relevant than ever. And both games accomplished this without bending over backwards to be "current" or "modern," or pandering to nostalgia. They're just good games.